Terrorism, Wars, Natural Disasters: Is it Really Safe to Travel?
Dear Savvy Traveller: I hear about terrorism, wars and natural disasters all the time and it makes the world sound too dangerous. How do you feel safe spending so much time all over the place? — Alicia Stanberry
You posed this question by asking about me. I live in New York City, where I’m surrounded by crushing crowds of eight million residents and one million daily visitors; insane street, metro and air traffic; a considerable homeless population; and tons of recorded violence daily.
We had an incomprehensible “superstorm” of hurricanes not long ago, and I don’t need to remind you of the constant terrorist threats leveled against my home city. So for me, personally, I think I might be safer every time I leave home and visit a new part of the world. At least statistically! Maybe someone should ask me how I feel safe living here.
If they did, my answer would be similar to what I’m going to say to you next because, even though you asked about me, I think you really want to know how you could feel safe travelling out into the world—and that is by thinking of the world the way I think of NYC.
You’ve brought up the age-old question of safety in our dangerous world. I do a lot of redirecting and encouraging in this column, but I’ll concede immediately that you’re correct: we hear terrifying news every day, and however sensationalized some of it may be, the world is a dangerous place.
But you’re already in it, Alicia. Even if you live in the most remote village of the quietest country, there are still humans somewhere in your vicinity, and you are always surrounded by nature. Neither of those two variables is predictable or consistent. I don’t want to convince you that your hometown is unsafe, but to encourage you to consider some calculated risk by realizing that you already live with most of that risk on a daily basis, and you’ve been fine and (hopefully) enjoying life thus far!
I’d also like to point out a specific phrase I used a moment ago, and that’s “age-old question.” It’s important to realize that each generation tends to think now is the most dangerous time there’s ever been, and it doesn’t matter which generation is correct.
Stay with me here: You may think it’s too dangerous to visit the world today, at its most dangerous point in history, but it would have been OK 200 years ago when it was a considerably safer place. Back then, a similar person would have considered then to be the most dangerous time there had ever been—but here you are today willing to travel in her world.
This also means that in 200 years, someone similar will think she lives in the most dangerous time and feel that your time (today) would have been much better. So, even if everyone is right that the world is progressively more dangerous and we are always living in the scariest time, everyone is also right that it will only get worse, and millions of future people will consider your time to be quite safe.
That’s a somewhat heady way of saying that there’s no time like the present, but I like the comfort that comes from realizing there will be people who find today to be safe and ideal. Let’s believe them, the same way you probably believe it was safe 200 years ago, even if they didn’t think so.
Or, let’s not be unreasonably worried about how dangerous the world is at all because most parts of the world are no more or less dangerous than others. Yes, there are terrible wars raging in some regions, outbreaks of disease pop up in some areas, and there are places less hospitable to people from certain countries, orientations or religions, and all of that is important to consider when picking a destination.
(See Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Harvard professor Steven Pinker, who uses facts to make that case that (as of today) things are actually pretty good on the planet.)
That’s reasonable concern for safety, and you can review your government’s travel safety recommendations for many of these issues. That’s an easy solution. I would consider natural disasters and terrorism to be, for the most part, unreasonable concerns because they are as possible in your hometown as they are in most places. Like most of life’s surprises, becoming a victim of one these scenarios is essentially being part of a lottery. Lightning or a deranged madman can strike just about anywhere, at any time.
You may tell me that being in New York City puts me at higher risk of terrorism because it’s a known target and has a track record of incidents, but I’ll remind you that there are eight million people living here, and that makes it incredibly unlikely I will be the victim if one or even 100 people are targeted.
Let’s say you, on the other hand, live in a town of only 50,000, and some incident like a bad storm or a random act of violence occurs. Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s all a scale that makes the risks involved in simply being alive somewhat equal wherever we are.
Neither of us should hunker down in our panic rooms and spend the rest of our lives in “safety.” That’s not life, and we’re not unsafe being outside or visiting parts of the world that see problems we don’t have at home.
They’re just different problems and, while other areas may have problems you and I don’t have, they also lack problems we do have. It’s a tradeoff that levels the field, and that’s a big part of why I feel safe almost everywhere I go. I may be more likely to encounter a tsunami in Thailand than at home in New York, but I’m more likely to be shot in New York than I am in Thailand. Ultimately, the safety lottery has roughly the same odds wherever I find myself. It’s only the type of incident that changes based on my location, not my level of risk.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a quote you’ve likely heard before, but it bears repeating because it’s perfectly apropos here, especially if you still think your home is the safest place to be.
“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” John A. Shedd